Disenchanted, though you wouldn’t know it at first, the lively and unruly Mitch is aware that his favorite ex-brother-in-law—the mild mannered Colin—is in the dumps following the demise of his second marriage. Having recently retired from life as a doctor, Mitch drops by to tell Colin he has a surprise: an all-expenses paid trip to Iceland. Colin attempts to politely decline, content with moping around, but Mitch won’t take no for an answer, and much to his chagrin he is soon packing his bags for Reykjavik. Hitting luxury hotels, trendy hot spots, beautiful spas, fancy restaurants, relaxing hot springs and some of the beautiful and exotic sights of Iceland, Mitch and Colin catch up, renew their old friendship and discuss the obstacles they’ve faced in life while trying to make sense of it all. For the introverted Aussie that is Colin, that kind of introspection is not always healthy. For the Kentucky-drawling, skirt-chasing Mitch, it's simply “doobification” time (eg. smoking copious joints).
Starring Paul Eenhoorn (the excellent lead of “This Is Martin Bonner”) and Earl Lynn Nelson as the two aged men on this voyage of self-discovery, “Land Ho!” is a diverting, humanistic travelogue that’s mostly amusing and genteel. Yet it often resembles a collection of vignettes in Iceland rather than a fully-formed story. Gently involving, but never quite engrossing, there’s a first draft shape to the picture that feels slight and makes for a minor work. And though the duo of Mitch and Colin are a charming odd couple, there’s very little in the way of honest human dynamics that convinces us that these two men would actually be great friends in real life. Later on in the picture, Mitch reveals his true colors and his selfish schema; the trip was always his way to cope with his own forced retirement, but since his friend footing the bill Colin has few complaints. And this is about as much conflict as “Land Ho!” delivers; it’s simply just not interested in struggle or obstacles. And that’s ok.
Played in a soft-note, minor key, when “Land Ho!” connects as a soothing story about aging, friendships, senior marginalization and not going out in life without a fight, the picture goes down smoothly like warm milk. But as a consequence, it doesn’t ever truly resonate beyond a pleasing satisfaction. There are few rough-around-the-edges corners of the screenplay, all the drama is very low-stakes, and though perhaps that’s the point, that doesn’t mean the film may not leave you wanting something more to hold on to.
Written and directed by Martha Stephens (“Passenger Pigeons”) and “Cold Weather”-helmer Aaron Katz (their first collaboration in a writer/co-director capacity) some of the peripheral aesthetics feel misplaced too. An '80s-sounding soundtrack and score, while nice on its own, just feels odd and unsuitable. Likewise, the pinkish hipster fonts utilized for the title card locations that chapter up the movie feel like strange creative choices, and not very appropriate for these characters. These aren’t deal-breakers, but they are noticeable.
Mitch is the more colorful character, with his flirtatious, borderline-constant sexual harassment of any women he meets, so Colin, who is the more soulful of the two, is the real heart of the movie. In fact, though boorish Mitch gets all the big laughs, Colin becomes impatient with his friend, and his boisterous, one-note personality becomes grating eventually. Of course it’s a mask for his larger issues, but if there’s pain or trouble, it’s barely explored.
Subdued, delicately-pitched movies are hard to pull off. They’re trickier and far more difficult than they look, and capturing a precise tone is everything. And surely a lot of nuanced work went on behind the scenes and in the writing, but “Land Ho!” is mostly detached from deep feeling. It’s just not that kind of film. You’re left to project much of your own thought on the softly spoken film, but if you’re not truly captivated, you may not find it especially expressive.
Executive produced by David Gordon Green, it’s easy to see why the filmmaker would respond well to a peculiar travelogue about two mismatched elderly men vacationing in Iceland. It sounds perfectly eccentric and quirky, but the reality is much more buffered. And this notion only make us wish we could have seen Green’s likely-more-idiosyncratic and sublime version of “Land Ho!” Instead, Stephens and Katz’s movie feels restrained and muted, pleasant and sweet. While “Land Ho!” is easy to admire and appreciate in its quiet observations and tender form, the movie’s restraint is such that it travels distances, but never quite gets to its destination in a way that’s ever truly moving or absorbing in the way it hopes to be. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.